Racism…who owns it?

I admit it, I allow myself a few guilty pleasures…one of which is to be a follower of the night time soap opera called “Kuzey Güney” on Turkish television…for no other reason than the fact that the young actor playing the character Kuzey is indeed easy on the eyes! The title of this nighttime soap translates into “North, South” and tells the story of the torrid family dynamics centering around two brothers with diametrically opposed characters. As I chat with one of my sisters about the oh-so-redeeming value of my guilty pleasure, she suggests that maybe “Kuzey Güney”  is based on John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the 1952 American classic based on the biblical story of Cain and Abel.  And so, I pick up a copy and start reading…and here is what I come across in Chapter 1/section 2:

“First there were Indians, an inferior breed without energy, inventiveness, or culture, a people that lived on grubs and grasshoppers and shellfish, too lazy to hunt or fish.  They ate what they could pick up and planted nothing.  They pounded bitter acorns for flour. Even their warfare was a weary pantomime. Then the hard, dry Spaniards came exploring through, greedy and realistic, and their greed was for gold or God.  They collected souls as they collected jewels.”

Surprised?  Well I was.  Here is John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel prize in 1962,  writing what today would have landed him on the cover of most newspapers, portrayed as a bigot and a racist.

Which brings me to the title of this blog: Racism…who owns it?  Is there any single group of people who can be branded as the unique or sole owners of racism, prejudice and bigotry? Do we attack the first person or persons who come to mind when we speak of bigotry in our times, or in any other time in history for that matter? Or do we stop and think before we write that offending and offensive line, or send in that pithy comment or tweet, casually branding an entire people?  As Armenians laud singer Cher for her Armenian ancestry, should they also reprimand her for her most famous song from the 70’s “Gypsies, tramps and thieves?” An ambiguous song: was she showing sympathy, or insulting all Romani women with stereotypical lines like “…every night all the men would come around and lay their money down.” Should we consider rescinding Steinbeck’s Nobel because we realize some of his brilliant prose could indeed be considered racist in 2012?
Is there any people in the world free of such lapses? I’m just asking…and by the way, that Cher song sure has a great melody…if you don’t dissect the lyrics too much…